Aging is a bad joke. Lushka was very old, and he rarely laughed at anything anymore. The youth howled, however - the porous youth, swelling with the delight of every little thing, bloating almost to bursting - until the laughter came steaming out of them in hoots and snorts. They whistled past Lushka’s windows in the evenings, inflated by life, and leaking. The youngest ones, in knitted suits of armour, clinging to their mothers like woollen barnacles, learnt the joke before anything else, suckled on it, and occasionally, when the humour became too rich or the punch line distasteful, they threw it up.
Lushka hadn’t always been elderly – obviously – he too had once had and held youth, though he wishes now that he had held onto it tighter. He had been a boy, long legged and well mannered. A soft spoken stripling. Lushka had even been a young man, a stronger sort - he thinks to himself – sturdier than the chortling youth of today. He was cherry wood to their balsa, he had burnt fiercer – days that left deep impressions upon them, had barely scratched him.
Lushka had rotten teeth and an eyelid with a sad hinge, weeping and hanging ajar when he slept. Loose joints. Piano wire hair. He had kept scars, climbing up each of his arms in salmon pink rungs whereas, ‘those lad’s’, he thought, ‘had kept diaries’. Lushka accrued his history, composed in his toothless lisp, braised in his bad breath: it was printed in ladders along his moccasin skin.
It is spring. Trees thawed. The ground sweats. The soil soaking. Grasses wet with the callow nerves of young love. It is the awkward season when forward blossoms, bee dancers, and gaudy wasps in swinging stingers, offend the prim flatlands. The steppe blushing in poppies; erupting in farrowed hives of potato pimples. Lushka would wake early and lie for long stretches listening to the birds. He distrusted the radio, the synthetic weather reports, the esoteric shipping forecasts. Instead he lay attentive to the crakes and linnets, the trafficators of the weather, signalling before a turn.
When the roosters pursed their beaks, Lushka shuttered his windows. When the gulls arrived, the glutton tourists – strutting amongst the crops in spoiling trajectories – the farmers cursed, but old Lushka was thankful, for hungry gulls towed in warm autumn afternoons, as if it were harnessed to their backs.
Don’t mistake Lushka, however, for a man of the wilds. True that his village is in the wilderness, and that he owns a small plot of land. Sure enough, that with his long beard and razor strop back he could well be a farmer, or with the scars on his arms and thick neck perhaps a farrier. He walks like a roof tiler - with his legs bent. Men who move how he does have spent long years on their knees, the gait of a salt miner – learnt from crouching and crawling. However, he hasn’t the hands of a tradesman, his fingers are slender and his palms almost doughy. Lushka’s long nails and soft fingertips are indicative of one more at ease with a tobacco pipe than a steam drill. His clothes also, could well confound any would-be guesser – a collection of polished pointed boots, two trim tailored jackets. The plaited shirts that hung in his wardrobe: collarless, pocketless were not in any sense, the uniform of the wilds. Familiar Lushka, dressed like a stranger. Composed of things from far off – ingredients stitched and bundled in the city. Lushka the long standing mystery of the steppe.
Those new to the village often talked to Lushka as if he himself was the visitor. Bedeviled at the sight of him, at first thinking him a lunatic voyager, then after learning of his great stature, and the respect held towards him, they passed the whole thing off as some sort of shared lunacy between the villagers. This old fool no doubt, they thought, was no more than a leathered farm hand who had found a cache of suits buried under his house, or had held up a coach and stripped the inhabitants.
Lushka took little heed of such nonsense. Rumour often gaggled about his lawn – pecked idiotically at his windows. Most men would have stirred, hitched their rufous britches and strode out red faced into the flock. Lushka knew better; weathered as he was, plucking at the chatter achieved little, those men indubitably shuffle home defeated, hands full of feathers and the prattle, ruffled, merely nuzzles itself - sprouts its down, reroots its calamus and returns the following afternoon. Not Lushka though, whilst others were throttling the babble, snatching at it’s pinions, he simply shuttered his blinds, smoked in the clay shade and waited for the gossip to flap it’s wings to exhaustion.
The four floors of Lushka’s house descended chronologically in age and general decay, he had built the attic room and current roof himself. The venerable ground floor had cold granite walls and hand-hewn poplar beams. The cornerstone reads as if it were chiselled by a child, frail letters spelling ‘H-O-M-E’ and no more. A backwards priest perhaps, making permanent his infantile blessing to his loyal, frightened congregation, or a shepherd, sharing with his beasts, striking out his achievement a little everyday, his hammer and chisel quivering with pride.
Lushka wonders if in fact the cornerstone came long before its message, he can imagine a bored bedlamite, steppe crazed and hemmed in by the weather. He can picture him, trapped in what was then little more than a stable, hammering out his discontent ironically into the granite as if he were tallying years in a prison cell.
Opening the front door to the towering house one enters straight into Lushka’s bedroom, and there is all that one would expect: his dresser, his lamp and laundry, his bed - though it is boxed by planks of rosewood and a little like a coffin – his locked chest, his open wardrobe. There are flecks of tobacco on every surface, curled like thick strands of hair, as if Lushka himself was made of it, and scratched around his bedroom malting. The bed - his pallet casket – was situated at the centre of the room, the walls surrounding it were hung with fabric. Coarse sheets of embroidery which smelt of smoke and were stitched in a loose yellow thread, leaking out somehow and conferring a private, perished quality to everything – a room of secret soot and sand.
There were bottles of white German wine stacked in the wardrobe, five trembling tiers - the top most peeking out like glass appendices from the legs of trousers hung from the rail. A cloudy shaving mirror swung from the door. Books lay on their pages, their spines softening. Bars of soap wrapped in paper. Pickled eggs, onions. whelks: disintegrating in glass jars of vinegar. A rifle shared a tin vase with two red walking sticks, the latter leaning away, looking timid - flushed at their own garish placidity.
The wooden furniture was haggard, stained. The few chairs, perpetually sea sick: having weak legs, and swaying at the slightest touch. The bed stand was practically built out of matchsticks. His desk leant up against the stone wall as if exhausted, above it, set deep into the granite was the room’s single window - the morning light, jaundice and uncertain, blinked sceptically through the blinds.
Lushka’s tapering homestead, even truncated as it was – capped in its hand thatched roof - was the tallest building for ten miles. It loomed over its neighbours; the remainder of the village looking shy and squat in comparison. Despite this, far from belittled, the villagers were proud of Lushka and his grand, hand made hermitage. Proud of its great linseed flower walls and its knurled orchard, its yellow windows, set back and framed in crimson lumber, squinting drowsily over the empty steppe.
The occasional barn, or grain silo rose up from the fields, but none in sight closed on the height of Lushka’s home, each of them scrub and bantam contenders. Lushka’s bedraggled fortress, its straw scalp dropping out in swathes and turning grey under the stresses of the weather. The front edge of it hanging in a fringe, obscuring the top floor windows. It called out to those crossing the plains, visible as it was, and entirely ludicrous. Many are drawn to it, confused by it, following lumbering orbits; mouths open and half witted. They arrive baffled, entitled somehow by its absurdity. It owes them wholly in its strangeness, the entirety of their endeavour. Probabilities must pale - here on the grasses – malform to the loneliest, rustic wants; that building up there in the distance, conspicuous, laid on that village like a lime washed egg, that building up there must be: an asylum, a hotel, a mill, an abbey, a store, a brothel, an office, a barracks, an observatory, a theatre, a saloon.
All manner stumble across it, situated where it is, halfway between the towns and the city, each with their own selfish expectation. Spoilt strays, wanderers, kick at the clay steps and yell insolently for a porter. Pilgrims sprinkle bread crumbs and hang coloured beads from the washing line. Young couples elope, begging the ostensible priest Lushka to make them married, consecrate their love by the village spring. Seamstresses sing in the orchard, carding wool waiting for royalty to arrive. Swarthy, shirtless topers frighten the linnet, knocking their empty flagons against the bird tables and demanding service. Salesman pester Lushka to purchase their wares, pedalling dried meats and pocket watches, posting their calling cards through gaps in the windows. Farmers in their church best lay land disputes at Lushka’s feet whilst old men sit panting on his steps, trembling their will and testaments, quietly expecting advise and signatures. Families skulk up from their hamlets in the evenings and deposit their insane – and Lushka on occasion, hitches his rifle and drives the derailed, howling into the wilds.